Children can begin attending school in Canada at age four or five by entering non-compulsory kindergarten programs offered by many provinces. Ontario recently instituted full-day kindergarten for 4- and 5-year olds and British Columbia offers full-day kindergarten for 5-year olds. Compulsory school starts at age 6 or 7, depending on the province or territory. In addition to public schools, several Canadian provinces have publically-funded Catholic and Protestant schools as well as charters. Alberta also subsidizes private schools. Fewer than 10 percent of students Canada-wide attend charters or private schools, however.
Children attend primary school until age 11-13, at which point they move on to lower secondary school where the range of taught subjects is expanded. Starting in lower secondary school, most schools offer two streams: academic and general, for students with different educational goals. There is a movement in some provinces to develop integrated teaching in lower secondary schools. Under this system, students would remain in the same classroom with the same teacher (as in elementary school) rather than have their subjects divided by period and teacher, but currently, lower secondary school is divided by class subject.
After completing lower secondary school at about age 15 students move on to upper secondary (senior high) school. Upper secondary school was, in the past, primarily for students who chose to pursue higher education, with students seeking vocational training educated separately. Now the majority of upper secondary schools are comprehensive and offer both academic and vocational programs. Education is compulsory through age 16 in all provinces except for three provinces, including Ontario, where it is compulsory through age 18. In several Canadian provinces, there are separate systems of English and French schools.
Standards and Curriculum
Canada does not have a national curriculum; rather, the provincial governments are responsible for establishing the curriculum for their schools, and each province has its own, ministry-established common curriculum. However, the Ministers of Education from each province have joined together in the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), in order to establish best practices in a collaborative effort. In addition to traditional compulsory subjects such as language, math, science, social studies and art, all provinces include citizenship education in the curriculum at both the primary and secondary levels. Many provinces have chosen to also incorporate elective subjects such as business and financial education.
Ontario has established curriculum frameworks, resources and achievement standards in the Arts, French, Health and Physical Education, Language, Mathematics, Native Languages, Science and Technology, and Social Studies at the elementary level, and additionally for Business Studies, Canadian and World Studies, Classical and International Languages, Computer Studies, Interdisciplinary Studies, Native Studies, and Technological Education at the secondary level. The curriculum is revised cyclically in consultation with curriculum developers, parents, teachers, and other interested parties; a full revision cycle takes about nine years, with different components of the curriculum updated every year. The curriculum is currently being updated and a new version is expected to be released in 2020. The Ontario Ministry of Education provides sample activities and rubrics for instruction that match the curriculum by grade level and by subject, to enable teachers to incorporate activities and assessments in the instruction that are directly aligned with the curriculum goals.
British Columbia is rolling out a new curriculum designed to help students succeed in a fast-changing, interconnected world. The curriculum is expected to be fully implemented in 2020. The new curriculum, called Building Student Success, is based on the latest research and international best practice. Concept-based and competency-driven, it is designed to maintain a focus on literacy and numeracy while supporting deeper learning. It is also flexible, encouraging students to engage in their own learning and follow their interests. The three core competencies (communications, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social competence) and two skill foundations (literacy and math) are integrated into all subject areas.
British Columbia has grade-by-grade curriculum frameworks for K-9 in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, French, French as a Second Language, Physical and Health Education, Arts Education, Career Education, and Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies. The Ministry of Education defines “what to teach” but not how to organize the time, space or teaching methods. Each subject area has a set of big ideas that students need to understand, curricular competencies that describe what students should be able to do, and curriculum “content” that describes what they should know. Teachers can then use a range of teaching tools and cross-curricular resources provided by the Ministry to support instruction and they are encouraged to create courses, modules, thematic units or learning experiences that meet students’ needs and interests.
At both the K-9 and 10-12 levels, the curriculum is intended to support both disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning and enable a variety of learning environments.
Assessment and Qualifications
All provinces develop their own assessments. Most have province-wide examinations in numeracy and literacy at select grade levels and then some have core-subject tests for high school graduation. In Ontario, students are assessed by the province in mathematics, reading and writing at grades 3 and 6; in mathematics at grade 9, and literacy at grade 10. A passing score on the grade 10 literacy test (the Secondary School Literacy Test) is required for graduation. In British Columbia, students take the Foundation Skills Assessment in reading, writing and numeracy in grades 4 and 7 and a literacy and mathematics assessment in high school. The province has just added a literacy and math test in high school that students are required to pass for graduation. In most provinces, including both Ontario and British Columbia, teachers use formative assessment in their classrooms. This includes daily student work, teacher-made tests and quizzes, writing assignments and group projects.
There are also national assessments which are carried out periodically. The primary national assessment is the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), which assesses the reading, math, and science skills of a sample of 13- and 16-year-old students. The PCAP was formulated to be much like PISA; each year, one of the three core test subjects is the primary focus of the examination. In addition to the tests, PCAP also collects data on Canadian learning contexts. Students, principals and teachers complete surveys which ask about the school learning environments and how much value is placed on the core subjects. PCAP’s results are reported by CMEC, and are analyzed by province, gender, and language spoken. They are used to inform broad policy decisions and as a benchmarking standard across provinces, but CMEC does not provide data on individual schools or school districts to the public.
Students in Ontario must pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (or complete a literacy course in grade 12 for students who have not been able to pass the test) in order to earn a high school diploma. British Columbia is implementing new 12th grade exams in literacy and numeracy although they will not be required for graduation until 2019-20. Graduation rates for upper secondary school vary across the country; in Ontario, the rate of graduation is 87 percent, in British Columbia it is 84 percent and the overall average across Canada is 83 percent.
Canada has community colleges like the United States, some of which are open admission and some of which have specific academic requirements for admission. Admission to universities in Canada is typically based on student performance in high school, and primarily on grades. Students who wish to continue on to university submit their transcripts to their school(s) of choice and are generally accepted on the basis of grades alone. Students are given preference at universities in their home province, but are allowed to apply to any university across the country. There is no major gateway exam required for admission.
Canada has the highest attainment rate in post-secondary education among OECD countries: 60.6 percent of 25-34-year olds in Canada have post-secondary credentials compared to 43.1 percent in the same age group for the OECD average in 2016. In 2017, Ontario has made college and university tuition and educational expenses free or low-cost for many students through the new Ontario Student Assistance Program, which offers grants and low-interest loans to students from low to middle income families.
The Structure of Ontario’s Education System
Canadian Language & Literacy Research Network Evaluation Report. (2009). “The Impact of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat: Changes in Ontario’s Education System,” final report submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Education. (PDF)
Klinger, Don A., Christoper DeLuca and Tess Miller. (2008). “The Evolving Culture of Large-Scale Assessments in Canadian Education,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 76. (PDF)